All this talk about new computers got me looking to see what’s out there in the channel. And it looks like the glut of Pentium 4s is finally clearing, making way for the 2-core revolution. Prices are low–I’m seeing dual-core systems, both Intel and AMD, with Windows licenses, for anywhere from $180 to $280 depending on configuration and some other factors that aren’t exactly clear to me.
Sound good? Here’s what to look for in an off-lease/refurbished computer.
How much memory does it have?
You may very well want to buy at the extremes: Either as little memory as possible, or as much memory as possible. These machines use DDR2 memory, which costs about twice as much as DDR3 memory these days. If you’re just going to run 32-bit Windows on it, then 4 GB is all you need. But if you’re looking for a cheap way to get to 64-bit Windows 7, chances are you want 8 GB of RAM, which is going to cost you about $100. There’s no point in paying extra for memory that you’re going to have to just turn around and resell, or put in a drawer somewhere.
Be sure to double- and triple-check with the manufacturer and a memory vendor like Crucial to see how many slots any system you’re considering has, and the maximum amount of memory it can take. Chances are you’re going to want to fill ‘er up, and the sooner you do that, the happier you’re likely to be.
What version of Windows does it have?
On the lower end of the cost spectrum, most of these machines are still coming with Windows XP. That’s either a good thing or a bad thing to you. I’m not going to judge, though I will say now that I’ve seen Windows 7 running on non-Celeron, non-Atom dual-core hardware, I understand why people like it. This level seems to be what people have in mind when they say a system that can run XP can run Windows 7 even better.
At the higher end of the spectrum, these machines are coming with Windows 7. And if you don’t have any extra Windows licenses, that Windows license alone is worth $100-$150. So keep that in mind.
If Windows 7 Home Premium is good enough for you, the 3-license family pack is still an option for upgrading these machines. You could get that for under $200 and have two other licenses that you can use on other machines.
How’s the hard drive?
Fortunately, at this level we’re finally beyond having to worry about whether it has SATA or the old PATA drives. Frankly, I don’t think it’s worth paying extra for a bigger drive because it’s hard to predict the life expectancy of the drive that’s in it. Platter drive failure rates increase steadily with age. You can run Spinrite on the drive to improve your chances, but when buying a refurbished system, you should assume you’re going to have to replace the hard drive relatively soon.
The good news is, hard drives are cheap, and whatever you buy today is likely to be faster than what’s in it, and a faster hard drive is one of the best performance upgrades you can make for an aging system. You can get a drive for $35-$50 that’s probably going to be larger than what’s in it, and is almost assuredly faster.
And of course, an SSD is an option. A $200 off-lease computer upgraded with a $160 SSD will run rings around a $400 computer from a consumer electronics store.
Is the video adequate, and if not, is it upgradeable?
These machines won’t ever be gaming rigs. The big thing you need to watch for is whether the system has a DVI port because if your monitor has one, presumably you will want to use it. And if the onboard video is inadequate for whatever reason, you need to check how large the power supply is, and whether the system can take a full-height card, or if you’ll have to run down a half-height card. If you’re looking at one of these systems in the first place you’re probably looking for a $35 video card to put in it. Just check the requirements of the card(s) you’re looking at, and make sure the system meets those requirements.
Is the power supply a standard form factor?
Some of these machines, especially the small form factor desktops, don’t use a standard off-the-shelf ATX power supply. Dig around enough and you can find a replacement for just about anything–the days of not being able to find replacement power supplies are thankfully over–but it pays to check that out in advance. It’s probably worth paying a little extra for a system that can take an ordinary ATX power supply. It’s a lot less painful to turn around and put a $30 power supply in a system in two years than it is to have to turn around search high and low for a weird power supply and have to pay $70 for it.
A little searching around on a given system make and model can usually tell you whether the power supply is standard or something weird. There’s always someone in some forum or another looking to upgrade one particular corporate machine.
Does the machine have adequate expandability?
Most of these systems have all of the essentials right on the motherboard. If your needs go beyond the essentials, double-check to make sure there are enough slots and drive bays of the right type to accomodate your ambitions. These days I find a small form factor desktop can usually accomodate me and I don’t have to be a 3-foot tower guy anymore. But sometimes a small system is just a little too small.
How will it run?
The companies that prepare these off-lease systems for resale wipe the drives as part of their standard procedure, then re-load some version of Windows on it–whether they go off the COA on the case or buy new licenses in bulk seems to depend on the reseller. But what you get is a clean, bare bones install. No junkware, no trialware, nothing. Sometimes it doesn’t even have drivers. So you may have to hunt down some drivers before the system is really ready to use. But with a clean install on it, the system will run really well.
Who should buy one
Someone who’s looking for a reliable, basic computer should be more than happy with one of these machines. PCs that spent their lives in a business environment typically were well cared for and haven’t been exposed to the rigors of overclocking and other things that shorten life expectancies. Not only that, they usually spent their lives running Excel, Outlook and Word, so they haven’t had to work all that hard.
And if you happen to have a supply of memory and other parts to upgrade this generation of machine, they definitely make sense to buy.
I also think these machines are an excellent option for those of us called upon to give technical support for relatives. Arrange for your relatives all to upgrade to the same off-lease machine around the same time, buy one for yourself and use it even if only as a secondary machine, configure them the same, and you’ll greatly narrow down the possible problems you’ll be asked to solve over the years.
Who shouldn’t buy one
If you like always having the newest thing or if you’re into gaming, this approach to computing isn’t for you.
And if you have the ability to build your own PC, price out the cost of building something better. If you can’t, then buy. If you can, then build.
Personally, at this time I fall into this category. The last time I was looking for an upgrade, back in 2007, I didn’t. I think it’s partly a matter of timing. In 2007, I looked at an off-lease machine, looked at what I had to work with, and determined it was cheaper to buy an off-lease computer than to try to build something comparable. Today for $200 I can build a better computer than I can find in the off-lease market. I won’t get a Windows license for that, but I still have 2/3 of a Windows 7 Family Pack that I haven’t used yet so the Windows license really isn’t of any value to me. For that $200 I’m going to have to supply some parts like the case and the optical drive, but I have those parts.